My friend Louis and I set out to Ocean Beach in San Francisco with the goal of creating a lettering system from something we found on the beach. Initially I was thinking of washed-up debris that I had used in the past to make assemblages. This usually consisted of various petrified wood or other deteriorated manmade objects.
As we scouted the beach and came to the spot where debris was usually found the beach was unusually clean and debris free. Nice! Louis pointed to a pile of sandbags and I agreed that we should go with that. The one constraint we had was to time-box the activity to two hours. It was late afternoon and the sun was setting so we got to work immediately.
Luckily as we formed the first letter “A” we noticed it happened to be right below a seawall on top of which was a pathway for runners, bicyclist, and sun gazers. It was built about 12 feet above and was ideal for photographing each letter. So we somewhat clumsily and painstakingly formed each letter and proceeded to photograph them one at a time.
As a design exercise what was immediately interesting was perspective. On the ground close to the sandbags the letter forms had detail and appeared orderly. When photographing them from 12 feet above I could see that they often needed minor adjustments, which I relayed to Louis. This reminded me of sitemaps and wireframes—two different views of a website or application that designers create to make design decisions.
A couple of other design processes came into play. Louis created a system to form the letters more efficiently. Instead of going in alphabetical order we formed letters that made sense based on the previous ones. This helped us move faster. I kept the order the way we did it in the above documented photo. The drawback was that we had to create another system to keep track and we had to double-check when we were finished that we had completed every letter. So with some efficiencies came some inefficiencies.
It was also interesting the way light was continually changing. It took us almost two hours to do all the letters and the sun was setting. Each photo has slightly different lighting. We don’t often consider this ambient factor in design, but there may be some possibilities of this to consider in design applications. For instance, how can the lighting of an interface change depending on the amount of time using it? How does the time of day alter it? Of course, there are apps that take this into consideration such as GPS apps that change interface color depending if it’s day or night. Or how most reading apps allow the user to change backgrounds and text color.
One last observation regarding this exercise was the physicality of it. Moving sandbags around for each letter and then climbing to the top of the retaining wall to take photos was a design workout.